artwork from Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" comics

Review: ‘The Sandman’ Is a World of Nightmares and Dreams

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman brought to the world a whirlwind of dreams and nightmares through his graphic novel series, The Sandman. Conceived in the late 1980s, Gaiman set out to make a completely new spin on DC Comics 1970s series of the same name. Since then, The Sandman garnered rave reviews. It became one of the first few graphic novels to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and a big influence over the fantasy and graphic novel genre. 

Neil Gaiman's panel at SXSW 2019
Neil Gaiman speaking at a panel at SXSW 2019 / Photo credit: ChinLin Pan/Geek Gals

A brand new audiobook version encapsulates Gaiman’s work through the voices of an exceptional A-list cast of actors. I got a chance to immerse myself in the gritty, whimsical world. The following covers the events of the first episode, or what I call the setting stone for the rest of the story, as well as my audiobook experience and take on the characters.

Capturing The First Episode

Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" Audible cover
Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” Audible cover

Dream’s Imprisonment 

For starters, The Sandman tells the story of Lord Morpheus, or Dream, who rules over the things of nightmares and imagination. Actor James McAvoy voices him In the audiobook. But you don’t get much of his perspective in the first episode. In fact, this episode takes the listeners through several decades in which Dream is held captive by a notorious cult leader, Roderick Burgess, and then his son, Alex Burgess, under their estate in England. 

After a futile attempt to summon Death and control immortality, Burgess instead summons Dream, described as a pale, lanky man wrapped in a black robe with fiery tips, black hair, and dark circular eyes. He also wields a helmet, a ruby chain around his neck, and a pouch full of sand. Roderick and his men take these items from Dream, stripping him and leaving him to rot in the cellar vault until he reveals his secrets on immortality. 

The Consequences in The Sandman

Of course, Roderick’s efforts don’t go as planned. Nor should, when an evil leader’s diabolical intentions are concerned. The whole hour of the first episode instead shows the effects of imprisoning Dream. Across several timespans, we get an update on Burgess and four other characters around the world who fall victim to the sleepy sickness, otherwise diagnosed as Encephalitis lethargica. Roderick’s second-in-command, Ruthven Sykes and his pregnant lover, Ethel Cripps, also escape with Dream’s powerful items, hiding away with their own use of protective magic for decades to evade Roderick’s vengeance. This becomes a key turning point later, as Dream’s powers rely heavily on his items.

Dream’s Freedom and Quest

It takes about seventy years for Dream to find an opportunity to escape. When he does by the end of the first episode, his quest begins: to recover his stolen items and ailing powers through worlds and realms unknown. This is where the quirks and perks of Dream’s full identity come to life through McAvoy’s auricular expressions. Dream’s entire quest, in addition to a little visit from his sister, Death, covers the first eight episodes in the audiobook, collectively known as Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes.

The Sandman Audiobook Experience

Cast of voice actors behind the Audible version of Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman"

The Tone 

As someone who didn’t read The Sandman graphic novel, I can honestly say I didn’t know what to expect from this audiobook. The great thing about the experience is how it pulls you into each time period through tone and atmosphere (it starts in 1916 and spans over several decades until the 1980s in Episode 1). The beginning sounded like being part of a Victorian England Masterpiece Mystery episode with a dash of mystical mayhem. There are antiques of the occult, a curator possessing a book of dark magic, a mansion serving a powerful cult that desires immortality, and the typical English twang. As the series progressed, the supernatural elements became more prominent, and the tone shifted to the whimsical frenzy of horror and fantasy so attuned to Gaiman’s style. 

The audiobook sends the listener through alternate realms, to the depths of hell, and even back in time to 1600s England. Each of these worlds sucked me in with the sounds of tumultuous dreams and magical interplay, the contemporary atmospheres, the shifting and often foreboding music, and of course the voices. The setting and tone of Gotham and Arkham Asylum also comes into play. After all, The Sandman does take place in the DC Universe.

The Voices

I didn’t expect anything less than stellar from a cast of actors who brought the characters to life. The voice of James McAvoy definitely sent tingles (of sand!) through my ears, ranging from his emotional reactions – whether that of intimidation, longing, or boredom –  to his introspective self-narrations. The emotions and personalities brought by every single voice fit perfectly to the setting and situation as described by Gaiman himself. 

Though I enjoyed listening to notable cast members like Michael Sheen playing Lucifer, Taron Egerton as John Constantine, and Andy Serkis as Dream’s raven, I was more intrigued with those who portrayed the minor mythical characters. They brought a range of personalities into otherwise amorphous representations. For instance, Cain and Abel brought a dopy, dark, and humorous take to their interactions, while those like the sister Fates had a more mischievous and sly appeal. Neil Gaiman himself as the spectacular narrator described the imagery, packed with his stylistic verses that ranged from the attractive to the obscene. Of course, I don’t mind him doing a read-aloud session with every one of his works.

The Characters

art from "The Sandman" comics
Image credit: Vertigo Comics, DC Comics

A Glimpse of The Endless

There is no surprise that each character comes with Gaiman’s signature style of quirky, gothic, mystical, and the mythical. In fact, his ability to give amorphous concepts a human embodiment (like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in Good Omens) is skillfully interwoven through Dream and his posse of godly beings called the Endless. The others are Death, Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Delirium, and Despair. We are given their history, which is assumed to predate life on Earth, the extent and flexibility of their powers, and the effects of their existence and interplay in the worlds they cross. 

In The Sandman, Dream has enough mystical prowess to change imagination and even reality, but still falls to human afflictions like depression. Death, on the other hand, is lively and positive, motivating her brother on several occasions while sporting a gothic attire. As a fan of ‘deathly’ portrayals, I find her the most fascinating because of how her character breaks the western stereotype of the foreboding grim reaper. In fact, there are occasions in which even the other members of The Endless portray a characteristic unassociated to their name (example: Destruction is fond of creative endeavors). At the same time, some are a lot more diabolical than others, as we see through Desire’s actions and animosity towards Dream.

Other Mythical (and Historical) Beings 

Gaiman’s skill of portraying biblical and other well-known mythical figures are also a treat. We have Cain and Abel from Dream’s realm who play the dark comedy duo. There is Lucifer who co-leads Hell with Beelzebub and Azazel, and is described to be more grounded and less intimidating than the other two. There are the Fates, or the Weird Sisters, who can’t be more cryptic and nasty once Dream approaches them. Gaiman sprinkles the likes of demons, gargoyles, and other beasts to juxtapose the more ‘human’ aspect of Dream’s journey to recover his powers and understand his purpose. 

In one of The Sandman’s standalone episodes, we are introduced to William Shakespeare as he prepares to put on his iconic play, Midsummer Knight’s Dream in front of a Faerie audience. It’s not unordinary to see historical characters take a new spin in Gaiman’s work. Here, Shakespeare strikes a bargain with Dream to have his plays live on after him, which is fulfilled through the latter’s guidance. I’ll admit, it would be nice to have a supernatural entity help me out with my own writing too.

Human Stories In The Mortal Realm

Lastly, nothing grabs my attention more than when fantastical worlds explore human complexities. The audiobook comprises of three standalone stories, one of which is called Façade. This one is probably my favorite of the three because we get a realistic perspective from the protagonist, Rainie (a retired Element Girl in the DC world) who loathes her “freakish” appearance and wants to end her life. This tale dives into a more raw experience of self-identity, body image, and Rainie’s personal struggles of living day to day. It was different from the fantastical absurdity of the other episodes, even though Death makes an appearance in a more positive light. Samantha Morton, who gives Rainie’s voice, does an excellent job pulling the listener into her psyche, playing on her casual reflections and emotional moments vividly. 

Final Thoughts on The Sandman

Overall, I recommend the audiobook as it takes you on a more vivid journey with the added sounds and voices than the comics. It enhances the gothic and mystical elements in the story. And since it’s pretty much a direct adaptation, the audiobook stays true to the source material. 

The voices play off each other very well, even though at times I couldn’t catch which character was speaking since a few of them sounded so similar. That is when listening to Gailman’s narration helps to first paint the scene and the interactions. It’s also important to note that there are intersecting storylines and standalone occurrences. Expect anything and everything. Of course, now we can only hope an on-screen adaptation can capture a similar response as the graphic novel series and the audiobook. But only time and a little help from the lord of dreams will tell. 

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman audiobook is out on Audible now. If you do not have Audible and you’d like to listen to this comedy, you can try a free 30-day trial membership to access it!

Read more of Julisa’s articles.

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Featured image credit: Vertigo Comics, DC Comics

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